Mocking Versus Understanding Religion

Today a friend* posted this on Facebook:

I’m here at the Detroit airport waiting for my flight back to New Jersey. There’s a Jewish fellow here who was just doing his morning prayers, complete with the little boxes strapped to his head and arm, and the strap coiled around his arm, bobbing back and forth and talking to himself.

I’m not trying to make fun of him nor mock him but doesn’t he feel silly? He should. I don’t want to be mean to him but I just want to ask him, “Why are you doing that? What do you think that actually accomplishes? Do you feel silly when you do it in public?” I understand ritual as a part of how humans make sense of their environments, especially in unfamiliar places, it can be comforting. But I have no respect for this type of behavior. It’s so obviously manmade and cultish.

This predictably started off a long discussion, in which some people implied that asking the man, “Don’t you feel silly?” is a form of mockery. The OP and others insisted that there’s nothing mocking about such a question, to which I responded:

Some questions aren’t just questions. They carry assumptions within them. Asking someone if they feel silly doing something presumes that there’s a reason for them to feel silly doing that thing. Plenty of people do “odd” things in public, for religious reasons or cultural reasons or mental health reasons or just they feel like it. Why single out an “odd” religious thing for this line of questioning?

Further, what does it matter? Why are you so curious how he feels about this? He almost certainly does not feel silly about it, and I know this because I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them, but it doesn’t matter to them very much because they’re used to it. In fact, if you approached him and asked about his religious practice, he would probably calmly and politely answer all of your questions, because Jews in this country are so used to being interrogated about our practices, beliefs, and culture all the damn time by random people who don’t know very much about us. I include myself in this “we” because, as a Jewish atheist who grew up in an area where there were almost no Jews, I was always treated as the sole representative of an entire culture to whom all questions could reasonably be directed, and I answered them patiently because the alternative would be to allow these people to continue believing all sorts of stereotyped, bigoted rubbish.

I’m not saying you, personally, believe stereotyped, bigoted rubbish, but your response to this person comes across as ignorant and callous, like you’re gawking at an exotic animal at a zoo. Worse, like you’re doing it in order to score political points on Facebook. If you’re genuinely curious and interested in starting off a discussion about religious practices in public and how people feel about them and why they do them, I would be happy to suggest some language that could’ve started this discussion without alienating so many people (mostly atheists).

I wanted to hash out some of the points I made there because it’s an interesting topic.

About the questions that aren’t just questions: the OP themselves specifically stated that the Jewish man “should” feel silly, which is a judgment. (Right or wrong, it is a judgment.) So there’s no way to ask the man whether or not he feels silly in a vacuum. As I said, asking someone that usually implies that you think the answer ought to be “yes,” and this is no exception.

I’ve met many people who stubbornly insist that everything they say be taken in the most literal manner, without any implicit content. This is facile. The majority of the time, someone who says, “Don’t you feel silly?” or even “Do you feel silly?” is implying that they think there’s a good reason for the person to feel silly. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that a given person who asks such a question is including that implication in it.

Often, questions like these are merely a passive-aggressive way to say, “I think you look silly,” or “You should feel silly.” But these things are very inappropriate to express in our culture, so we’ve developed other ways to express them–ways that have plausible deniability. “I wasn’t saying I think they’re silly! I was just asking a question!” Yeah, right.

Ditto for the OP’s other questions, such as “What do you think that actually accomplishes?” If you really, earnestly have to ask a religious person this, then you don’t know much about religion. If you earnestly ask it, they will probably say, “It helps me feel a connection with god,” or “It helps me feel good,” or “It allows me to ask god to keep me and my family safe.” That’s why I think the question is not earnest, and it’s not really a question. It’s a statement, and the statement is, “Prayer doesn’t accomplish anything, you know.” You should say what you mean.

This whole post is weirdly presumptive. Why should a random person care that the OP thinks they “should” feel silly, or that they “have no respect for this type of behavior”? Plenty of people think I “should” feel silly because I like games, and even more people “have no respect” for the fact that I dress the way I do, have sex the way I do, and interact with people the way I do. If you’re hoping to change people’s behavior, expressing an opinion about it that they aren’t likely to care about isn’t going to do it. (Neither is attacking the extremely low-hanging fruit of “silly”-looking public prayer, but that’s a separate issue.) Jewish people in particular are very accustomed to non-Jews expressing judgmental, ignorant, and rude opinions about their practices, religious and otherwise. This has been happening for millennia. If ridicule hasn’t deconverted them yet, it’s not going to.

Some atheists think of religion and religious privilege in very stark terms: religious people are privileged, atheists are oppressed. Even if this is true in the strictest sense, Jews do not command religious privilege comparable to that of Christians. I don’t think I need to try to provide a catalog of the ways in which Jews have been oppressed, including in the United States, including today. I have personally experienced anti-Semitism, despite being an atheist.

In fact, a number of people in the thread said that they would be scared to fly in an airplane with someone that they had just noticed openly wearing tefillin and praying. I’m not sure how this is anything other than a grossly bigoted thing to say. While the OP did not themselves say such things, neither did they call out in any way the people who said it. That’s how discussions like these allow anti-Semitism and other bigoted attitudes to flourish. I’m sure the OP did not cause the people who said these things to have those opinions, as they probably had them before, but their unremarked upon presence in the thread normalizes the idea of presuming a religious person to be dangerous simply because they prayed in public. While this is a type of bigotry more dangerous to Muslims (and people perceived as Muslims), I’m not exactly happy to see it spreading to Jews.

I mentioned that I’d be happy to offer some language for asking people about their beliefs and practices (religious or otherwise) that is less likely to be pointlessly hurtful. The OP has not taken me up on that offer, but I will include it here:

  • “I noticed you praying in public. I’m curious about it. Do you mind telling me about why you do that?”
  • “What’s it like being a member of a minority religious group in such a visible way?”
  • “Do you ever feel self-conscious when you pray in public? How do you deal with that?”

Notice how all of these questions get at the issues that the OP claimed to be curious about, but in a way that communicates interest and curiosity rather than judgment and scorn. And maybe the OP really does feel judgment and scorn (at least, that is the impression I got from the post), but most people understand that there are times judgment and scorn can get in the way of learning and understanding. Even if you’re looking to ultimately change their mind, you’re going to be more successful if you don’t make them feel shamed and judged from the get-go. Shaming is actually not a good motivator.

Of course, if your actual goal is to mock religion, that’s different. That doesn’t interest me at all, but some people do it for personal reasons or political ones or some combination. Whatever, I’m not interested in telling people what to do so much as in telling people when their stated goals are not compatible with their actions. The OP said they wanted to understand, not mock. To me, it seemed like a bunch of statements with plausible deniability, and very little attempt at understanding.

But I suppose the real source of disagreement here is that I can’t bring myself to care about the mere fact that some person is religious and prays. If that’s all the information I have, I don’t care. I care about the ways organized religion harms its adherents, other people, and society. This is why I argue with people about things like abortion, sex education, separation of church and state, coerced prayer, science education, homophobia, and so on. If a religious person has views on these things that I disagree with, then I will argue with those views. The religious belief itself is something I also disagree with, but doesn’t harm me, so I don’t care about it. I don’t believe that religious belief somehow necessitates sexism, homophobia, or anything else, and I don’t believe that sexism, homophobia, or those other bad things can be fought simply by fighting religious belief, and I do believe that people will continue to believe in supernatural entities until we find a way to provide what they’re looking for without religion. We haven’t done that yet.


*I intentionally left this person’s name out of this thread even though the post was public. That’s because I want this to be a discussion about these ideas (and my ideas), not about this person and what else they may have said before and who they are as a person. There’s nothing wrong with discussing that, but I’m not interested in hosting that discussion here. I will delete or edit comments that name this person, or go off-topic. If the OP wants to identify themselves in the comments, they are welcome to.

Mocking Versus Understanding Religion

22 thoughts on “Mocking Versus Understanding Religion

  1. Pen

    I think the friend is displaying a whole attitude towards what people do in public that could use some re-examination, even outside the context of religion. Instead of asking what’s going on with the Jewish guy praying, ask what’s going on with the people who care so much. It always astonishes me that for societies which purport to be ‘free’, in which most people strongly support some definition of ‘freedom’ and feel proud of our right to express ourselves as individuals, many of us are terribly intolerant of public deviancy from the norm. Even deviations which do no harm to anyone whatsoever, which don’t even cross our boundaries of decency. We act as though deviance was indecent in itself, and in some cases, dangerous. And we think it’s our business. It may, in fact, lead us to behave in ways we would never adopt with a person who faded into the ‘normal’ background: from abuse to avoidance and embarrassment to expressions of curiosity about aspects of a stranger’s life* to attempts to convert the person back to more ‘normal’ outward behaviour, to merely ‘complaining’ about it on Facebook afterwards. Why so uncomfortable? Once you start looking at what’s going on there, whatever it is, it really doesn’t stand up to the cold light of reason. To me there’s something culturally naive about this friend’s response.

    * Some people argue about whether genuine curiosity is or is not benign. I’ve been on the receiving end myself -sometimes very intensely – and I’m kind of like the person in the response you quoted. I consent to behave as a ‘representative’ and I’m usually patient and friendly. I see this as one of the things I can do which benefits society.and in point of fact, I don’t mind. But I easily could… it’s a particular thing to live with ‘outsiderhood’ and some people aren’t comfortable with it. Also, I’m not sure asking random strangers for cultural information is the best way to obtain it, or the best way to start a conversation (especially when someone is clearly busy).

  2. 2

    Good point. My take on ‘isn’t that silly’ is that social norms are fairly arbitrary and behaviors only look ‘strange’ ‘silly’ or such when they aren’t very prevalent, so this seems more like people who are part of the majority looking at those strange demographic minorities. The other thing is, when it comes to what other people do, if it isn’t harmful, it’s not really my business.

  3. 3

    But your facebook friend didn’t go up to the praying guy to ask the questions, did he? From his wording he was perfectly aware that asking them would be rude and mean and so he refrained from asking, especially in a way that clearly conveys his current opinion on such prayer practices.
    The actual question “What do you think that actually accomplishes?” is much more honest and to the point than “Do you mind telling me why you’re doing that?”. Beyond hearing about all the wishy-washy connected-with-god feelings, the point of curiosity is probably “Do you actually think that publicly performing a ritual involving some straps and mumbling in public will influence the course of events by convincing a supernatural being to do something one way or the other? As I’m sure you’re aware that this is magical thinking, how do you manage to reconcile it with any rational view of the world that you hold?” I know I’d love to know what exactly goes on in a religious person’s head in that respect, especially with fellow mathematicians and scientists.
    With magical thinking being out of fashion, this is obviously a question that many would find insulting because it reminds them of doing something that’s considered stupid, so I prefer not to ask. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not a legitimate question to wonder about.

    1. 3.1

      No, they did not ask, but they did not see how their wording could come across as mocking or rude, either. I don’t know why they didn’t ask.

      “What do you think that actually accomplishes?” presumes that you want the answer to be “nothing” and implies that you’re hoping to somehow trick them into admitting that they don’t think it accomplishes anything. “Why are you doing that” will yield either “because I want god to do what I ask” OR “because it makes me feel better.” Plenty of religious people pray for the latter reason, not because they think it can influence material reality. But most atheists don’t find that a satisfying answer because it doesn’t make sense to us. After all, if it made sense, we’d be doing it too.

      1. For me “I’m not trying to make fun of him nor mock him but doesn’t he feel silly? He should. I don’t want to be mean to him but I just want to ask him, …” sounds very much like an acknowledgement that such a question would feel like mockery to the person praying, and therefore deciding to ask him. Or did you mean that privately finding the prayer ridiculous is already mocking?

        “What do you think that actually accomplishes?” asks precisely what it means — “do you actually expect this ritual, in its exact form, to make a tangible difference to something?”.
        The bit with feeling connected/better is a given, but lots of people (including Jews) manage to do this by simply “talking to god” in their thoughts. So there must be some perceived benefit to the specific prayer ritual — one that this person considers important enough to actually perform it in public even though it’s quite elaborate and probably also a tad uncomfortable with random strangers staring on. The fact that they’re going to this length means they probably thought quite a lot about what it means to them, why it’s worth doing to them, and what they think it accomplishes. And I’d be very interested to hear the perspective of such a person, because I’d love to at least understand in the abstract how our (probably) fundamentally different understandings of god-related matters both manage to fit together with our probably shared understandings of the material world.

        But, just to be clear, since it’s clearly not acceptable to hurt people in the process of satisfying my curiosity, and lots of people do feel hurt when their religious beliefs are questioned in any way, I don’t ask.

    2. 3.2

      “With magical thinking being out of fashion, this is obviously a question that many would find insulting because it reminds them of doing something that’s considered stupid, so I prefer not to ask. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not a legitimate question to wonder about.”

      Many things in our society are “considered stupid,” but curiously that hasn’t stopped us from praying, offering blessings, keeping kosher, etc. We do these things because they feel meaningful to us. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t do them.

      There’s plenty of variation in any given species, and for humans that applies in numerous additional ways, one of them being issues of fulfillment. I can’t for the life of me understand how a soccer match can be so captivating to so many people. But instead of describing it in the most stupid terms possible, I instead spend my time doing things I find meaningful.

      And if G-d could answer prayers, I wouldn’t have to do all the work burning the last twenty pounds off my fat ass.

  4. 4

    Well, I hate to defend the atheist community, but I think you can rightly say belief is, in a general sense, privileged or valued or trusted over non-belief. The shitting-upon of Jews or Muslims, while a thing that happens, isn’t due to them having faith, or believing in a higher power. Which is basically what I think atheists mean when they say that “religion” is privileged- that faith is considered a virtue.

    1. 4.1

      I formulated that poorly (I’m tired). All I’m saying is that “religious privilege” and “Christian privilege” are different; you can have one and not the other. It might sound a bit like splitting hairs, but I think that, conceptually, it’s an important distinction.

    2. 4.2

      I hate to defend the atheist community


      Anyway, I largely agree with you. I do think, though, that most of the prejudice and discrimination directed at Jews, Muslims, etc in the United States comes from Christians, who are the majority, and who do discriminate against them on the basis of their actual beliefs. But in some other ways, maybe among certain groups of liberal Christians, Jews and Muslims do get privileged over atheists because they still believe. (I’ve heard Christians say things like, “Well, I don’t care what god they say they believe in, it’s all the same god.” Ironically, those Jews and Muslims would probably not agree with that!)

  5. 5

    Even if you’re looking to ultimately change their mind, you’re going to be more successful if you don’t make them feel shamed and judged from the get-go. Shaming is actually not a good motivator.

    This may be something of a derailment, and if you don’t want to deal with it on that basis, or can just shoot a link to a treatment of it, that’s quite all right – it’s just one bit that stuck out for me as something I’d want to think about.

    Is shaming never a good motivator? I mean, I’d not dream of it as one in _this_ case – being some sort of discomfort-inflicting jerk in response to harmless behavior just is not on the table for decent people, and picking on a historically or currently persecuted religious minority is not cool – but I would think that public shaming really ought to be on the table as a motivator for other sorts of behavior, or even thinking. If someone’s publicly abusing their spouse or child, a healthy dose of public shame does strike me as fitting, justified, and standing a good shot at positively adjusting future behavior out of them and out of potentially sympathetic bystanders, and may support a more assertive stance on the part of the person suffering the abuse.

    But that leaves the question about how right I am thinking any of that – it’s all just the sense I have now, nothing I’m not open to being corrected about – and just what makes the difference.

  6. 7

    I saw the picture of that man praying in public, I read and commented within that thread.

    I thought had it been a Muslim bowing down on the ground with his buttock up in the air, many would call security out of concern for his possibly unstable mental state of being. I see no harm done to that man personally when being mocked on a facebook page he will not likely ever read.

    Mocking, though seemingly harsh, is a form of expressing disapproval no different than asking a person to stop a loud, annoying and irritating cell phone conversation in public.

    I know personally about how religion bolsters human superiority complexes, how is exacerbates xenophobia and draws a “us vs them” line on the airport carpet. Sanctimonious Prayer, like a Penis, should not be shown in public! It is inappropriate.

  7. Ed

    Even if no harm is done to that particular person right then, it encorages intolerance of non-mainstream clothing and practices even if they are very essential to a person`s identity and well within their rights. How is a Jewish man standing there praying violating anyone’s freedom or space unless he’s running around bumping into people while doing it? It’s unlikely that he made the airport any more noisy than it already was.

    There is probably a centering, meditative aspect to that kind of very ritualistic prayer in addition to the theistic “asking God for something” part. Flying is stressful, and people do different things to calm themselves.

    I’m not an admirer of the restrictiveness and social conservatism within the Orthodox community(or religious dogma as such), but they’re rarely trying to force it on anyone else. He doesn’t care that you don’t practice his religion and if you wanted to, it would take years to integrate into it. Ironically, the religions that are more exclusive are sometimes less of a danger to others. The religions that want to welcome the whole planet into the fold often don’t take rejection well.

    Hopefully I’m wrong about the person who made the comments that inspired this article, but the whole issue reminded me too much of Archie Bunker types who have similar sarcastic things to say about pretty much anything that stands out as “different.”

  8. 9

    This discussion of the “strictest sense” of relative levels of privilege – atheists vs Jews vs Christians vs Muslims – is misleading.

    For one, it simplifies differences within a broad religious tradition, such as Liberal vs Conservative vs Orthodox Judaism. Atheists do have at least some privilege insofar as they are free to ignore these differences and pretend the issue is “belief vs non-belief”. Your friend seems to be saying “Some religious practices are OK, if misguided, while these other ones (like praying in public wearing tefillin) are not and I’m going to mock and demean you until you stop.” Frankly, it’s not up to your friend to decide what form of Judaism is acceptable: they’re not a Jew! It’s no more acceptable for me to tell black people what it means to be authentically black.

    Judaism, Christianity and even certain denominations of Christianity like Roman Catholicism, are incredibly diverse. Some, like mainline Protestant churches and certain forms of Catholicism may retain a privilege advantage over atheists. But others, such as more traditional forms of Catholicism, Mormonism, orthodox Judaism, etc… are viewed as strange, peculiar and suspect even within the broader word of Catholicism, Christianity and Judaism. Atheists need to be careful not to, via their own ignorance, insert themselves into intra-religious disputes and contribute to the marginalization of sub-communities.

    Secondly, whether or not the religious are more privileged in the “strictest sense,” your friend is talking as if they had privilege. It has all the same symptoms of privilege-induced ignorance as privilege: Those aspects of religion that I understand and relate to are OK, those aspects I don’t understand are not and should be eliminated; an inability to distinguish mockery from honest curiosity; the expectation that their own views are widely-held.

    “Sanctimonious Prayer, like a Penis, should not be shown in public! It is inappropriate.”

    The professor whose office is next to mine is very liberal and often posts material on his bulletin board expressing these views. One sign offered a similar sentiment (with same penis analogy), which I’m paraphrasing: “Religion, like a penis, is a perfectly fine thing to have. But it’s not OK to display it in public and shove it in my face.”

    I find this incredibly bigoted. Can you imagine saying the same thing about homosexuality? “Being gay, like having a penis, is a perfectly fine thing to be. Just don’t shove it in my face in public. Don’t hold hands or kiss in public; don’t acknowledge your relationship in public, cover up and hide your identity in public. It scares and intimidates me. It’s inappropriate.”

  9. 10

    For me the crucial fragment of your friend’s OP was „But I have no respect for this type of behavior. It’s so obviously manmade and cultish.” My comment: it doesn’t sound like s/he is curious, in search for a new information, trying to understand. Quite the opposite: the verdict has already been taken. The rest is a smokescreen, exactly as you described it.

    Of course, if your actual goal is to mock religion, that’s different. That doesn’t interest me at all

    Unfortunately, this seems to me indeed the actual goal here. I say “unfortunately”, because if this is so, much of what you say doesn’t hit the target.

    If you’re hoping to change people’s behavior, expressing an opinion about it that they aren’t likely to care about isn’t going to do it.

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about mockery (and this is to put it rather mildly!). However, my own doubts concern not so much the effectiveness as the cruelty of mockery used as a weapon. In the quoted passage you seem to worry about effectiveness, but here is the thing: I don’t view mockery as a way to change the behavior of the mocked person (or at least I don’t treat it as the primary aim). More often (imo) mockery is rather a method to win the bystanders to your side. In effect it is a strategy designed not so much to change your ways, as to make you … well … lonely. Helpless against the laughing crowd. Unworthy. Perhaps too scared to say a word. But most importantly: inconsequential, powerless and without influence. Oh, this ridiculous guy ‘with the little boxes strapped to his head and arm’ – dear readers, dear bystanders, how can anyone take him seriously!

    I think that in this role it’s quite efficient, yes. A nightmare when you are on the receiving end, but efficient.

    By the way:

    But I suppose the real source of disagreement here is that I can’t bring myself to care about the mere fact that some person is religious and prays. If that’s all the information I have, I don’t care.

    Same here.

  10. 11


    I’m split. I agree that your friend lacks major tact. I’m glad he did not approach the person and actually proceed to ask those questions. In a free society, people are free to ray or not pray as they see fit, and as much as I hate religion, I absolutely support this person’s right to pray in public.

    On the other hand, it does seem silly. I find the whole concept of faith and such to be utterly alien… I feel like any advanced ET visiting us would laugh at of us for things like prayer, and holy books, and so on. And I was one of those people. I even prayed in public exactly like the person your friend is talking about. And now, looking back on it, I’m embarrassed about it, just like I was embarrassed to find a cassette tape of me singing about how I’m protected by God and angels from when I was something like 7 or 8. Religious faith is something I really do wish would just go away, because I’m convinced it holds the human species back from becoming a space-faring civilization. I have said, and will continue to say, that I would love to live to see the day when the Bible becomes nothing more than a historical curiosity, gathering dust on a museum shelf.

    I don’t like your friend’s questions at all. They’re othering and shaming. But I can’t disagree that faith is silly.

    I don’t know… this is rambly and possibly off-topic because it’s 4am and I’m high on antihistamine (damn Hay Fever!), so I’m not very coherent. I think I’ll just go to bed… 😀

    1. 11.1

      On the one hand, I also find faith silly; on the other, I find it a perfectly sensible response to the terror–of death, of sickness, of meaninglessness, of uncertainty–that many people live with. Until I find a way to make these things okay for people, I can’t judge faith too much.

      1. I’m re-reading this now that I’m more awake (I had a horrible night, and really didn’t actually get any sleep until after 9 am).

        Reading it again, I’m not… I mean… it’s not that I disagree, it’s just that I see faith as more of a bug as opposed to a feature, I guess. And I’d argue that religion has at least a little bit of the blame for the strife and darkness we humans have created on this planet.

        I guess I’m not sure that I consider it a sensible response?

        I admit I’m biased towards my own experience. Losing my faith coincided with my losing the worst of my anxiety and depression. It was when I believed that I was suicidal. I’m not really sure how to put it, but losing my faith was a huge part of a process that changed a lot of that… made me happier. I would almost say that losing my faith made me healthier in a way…

        But that’s just me, and I’m not humanity. I’m a sample-size of one, and I’m biased towards my experience, so it doesn’t really say much…

  11. Ed

    ‘re: Miri in post 10.1–

    I tend to agree. I’ll make fun of dogma and nonsense in discussions of the conceptual content of religion, but often see religious people’s personal and communal quest for meaning and comfort in a terrifying world in sympathetic terms.

    It grates on my nerves to see glib “more atheist than thou” types attack any cultural product with religious roots. I’ve even heard people mock things like Renaissance and Byzantine art, the architecture of stunning cathedrals, temples and mosques and African American gospel music despite the fact that if anything can be called objectively beautiful, these things should all qualify.

    And in their need to ostentatiously declare their contempt for “woo”, such people often feel the need to cynically bash any meditative or otherwise consciousness enhancing practices that bring anyone closer to inner peace.

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